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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Savannah's Nuclear Bomb


About.com is holding a meeting in Savannah this weekend so I suspect my coworkers would be interested to know that there is a live nuclear bomb off the Georgia coast. In February 1958 a B-47 bomber on a training mission out of Homestead Air Force Base in Florida had a collision with an F-86. The pilot of the F-86 parachuted to safety and the fighter jet crashed. The B-47 also sustained damage. The crew requested and received permission to jettison the 7,600 pound Mark 15 bomb it was carrying so that the aircraft could more safely land at Hunter Air Force Base.
The bomb was lost somewhere in Wassaw Sound off the shores of Tybee Island, where it remains to this day, probably sunk in 5-12 feet of muck at the bottom of the sound. This puts it in shallow water just off the coast of Savannah, close enough to me that if it detonated today I'd likely see the flash where I live in Myrtle Beach or be annihilated at the meeting in Savannah.


However, the nuke is a decently good neighbor and I'm not particularly worried about it as either a source of enriched-uranium for would-be terrorists or as a threat to the safety of people living on the Southeastern seaboard. Yes, the bomb does contain enriched uranium. While later bombs sometimes incorporated depleted uranium, the Mark 15 relied on a fission nuclear primary (Cobra) to implode a secondary stage consisting mainly of highly enriched uranium. Most of the energy of the secondary stage derived from fission reactions, though there also was a thermonuclear core which underwent fusion and contributed neutrons to the fission reactions. While the uranium is not exactly weapons-grade by modern standards, the radioactive material theoretically could be used to construct a 'dirty bomb'... if someone could recover it. The silt and mud of the sound would make that a herculean and highly expensive task.

There are conflicting reports, but it seems likely the bomb has a detonation capsule and is live. However, the conventional explosives aren't a threat as long as the bomb is left alone. The bomb won't just 'go off', so as things stand now, the only real risk to the area is from leakage of heavy metals into the sound when the casing corrodes. Does the bomb present a substantial ecological hazard? I don't really know, but I would think the risks associated with attempting to recover the nuke outweigh the benefits of removing it.

Anyway... today I'll wave to my neighbor on Tybee Island. Hopefully its next 50 years will be as quiet as the first 50.

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